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This semester I’m teaching a course on Spiritual Formation. Most of the students are theology majors interested in youth ministry or worship arts, and it’s safe to say that none of them consider themselves liturgical. I began the class with a modified morning prayer taken from Orthodox and Catholic prayer books. After about a week it was clear it wasn’t “working”—students said they didn’t get it. “It doesn’t work for me.” “I don’t feel anything.” “They’re just words, I don’t feel like I mean them.” These were the responses. I appreciated their honesty, but I wasn’t going to give up. So we read Henry Nouwen, Richard Foster, and Thomas Merton. We prayed, we mediated, we practiced Lectio Divina, but still the same response. A very protestant group they are… even though I tried to convince them that John Calvin would appreciate these practices more than modern evangelical forms of piety.
Last Sunday and Monday we took a pilgrimage to St. John’s Monastery near Saint Cloud, MN. Twenty of us packed into two vans and drove four hours to pray with a group of Benedictine monks. I was a bit apprehensive—the trip seemed like a good idea when I was putting the course together, but now I wasn’t so sure. I thought students would appreciate the experiential aspect of the course—instead of just talking about prayer and scripture reading, we’d practice it with people who are pretty good at liturgical prayer and the spiritual disciplines. But now, given the response to our own prayer time in class, I was anxious. Would they participate? Would they question the whole thing?
The trip didn’t get off to a good start… we showed up late for prayer. A student loudly dropped her wooden bench in the middle of a moment of silence. As I slumped into my seat, preparing for the worst, I said a little prayer under my breath. And away we went…We prayed. We practiced silence. We meditated. I took their phones away, gave them big chunks of time to practice their own prayer and scripture reading, and held a Compline service in the side chapel. After the service one of students lingered behind. “I think I’m starting to get this liturgical prayer thing,” he said, as he walked away toward his room. The next morning we prayed at 7 am and then had a tour of the church. We met with a young monk just completing his initiation into the order. He blew up every reason my students had given me earlier in the semester for why we should not use liturgical prayer. He told them of how there are times when he’s far away from the words he’s saying. There are times when he’s restless and anxious and wants to be anywhere but there. But then he went on to talk about how the Psalms have seeped into his being. They are a part of him, always on the tip of his tongue, always right there as a way to respond to the world. “This,” he claimed, “is the beauty of praying the Psalms daily.”
On the way home I asked students to reflect on their time at St. John’s. “Ten out to ten. I’d do it again,” was the response. To my amazement everyone agreed. Not only would they do it again, but they thought our accommodations were too nice. (The Benedictines take hospitality seriously.) Some of them wanted to sleep in a cave or a hut. (Thankfully we didn’t – the high temp the day we arrived was -6 degrees!) One student thanked me for taking their phones away. “We had great conversations that would have constantly been interrupted by looking at our phones.” Crazy.
I keep telling students that I’m not trying to make them Catholic, I’m trying to help them reclaim parts of the Christian tradition that have been an important part of piety for over 2,000 years. I like their praise and worship—many of them are talented musicians and worship leaders. I love their passion for spirituality—many of them are better, nicer, more pleasant people than I ever will be. I just want them to be grounded—to realize that most of the Christian life is lived between the mountain peaks in the ordinary things of life and that God’s ok with us not feeling something every time we pray or read scripture. That’s like saying we feel something every time we’re with fiends or loved ones. Often, the best experiences we have with those we love are the times we’re doing ordinary things in ordinary ways.
So that’s the news from the monastery, where most of the prayers are Psalms, and the people dress like Jedis.